Is the threat of dictatorship and oppression but a distant memory? Is it something only found in developing countries half a world away? Has democracy and its subliminal values been entrenched in the West? These are all issues that Dennis Gansel’s film Die Welle (The Wave in English) seeks to deal with. Based on true events, this story seeks to explore the human psyche and the very society that we are taking for granted when it is put under pressure and its ‘basic truths’ are questioned.
The main question throughout the film is whether a dictatorship could arise again in Germany, and by extension, the cultural West. If one were to ask a large number of people on the streets of London, Paris or indeed Berlin, the absolute majority would shrug it off as a mere deranged hypothetical. Surely we have been enlightened enough to understand the virtues of democracy and recognise the signs of a dictatorship lurking in the shadows?
The answer is painfully simple, and it is ‘no’. Many, especially in liberal and social democratic circles carry with them a basic, yet potentially dangerous flaw in their way of thinking. They put democracy as a value above all other values, including the right to self-determination. Having travelled around Europe debating politics I have made one frightening discovery. My generation, the leaders of the future, have become complacent. ‘Democracy is inherently good and everyone knows that’ is the standard phrase. This is the mindset that forms the setting for Die Welle.
In less than a week a class with German A-level students have shunned democracy and its values and turned towards authoritarianism, without the majority noticing. The social experiment conducted under the leadership of their left-leaning teacher sees the gradual erosion of individuality whilst building a sense of belonging, common values and purpose. Only, of course, if you were part of the movement, ‘the Wave’
The few that did understand what was going on stood up and tried to voice their concerns. They were socially excluded, shunned and silenced. Their views were unwanted and critical and against the new establishment. The conclusion is stark – the values of democracy are skin deep. If not guarded and maintained by a vigilant public, then democracy is easily undone.
We are all expecting that dictatorships can only happen by a revolution or coup d’etat. Some do, but some of the worst dictatorships we have seen in Europe were voted in by popular vote. This is less than a century ago. Those that lived under Hitler or Mussolini are becoming fewer and fewer and with them the firsthand experience of the erosion of personal liberties. This only means that we must fight harder. Not only against the extremes on the left and right, but also against governments and authorities that are attempting to suppress the individual. A complacent political establishment now thinks that the past cannot be repeated, as we all know of the ills of dictatorship. But do we?
The film ends in tragedy with the end of the experiment, but also highlights something that liberal individualism seems to have forgotten – human nature. Whilst not deterministically controlled by our nature it does play a significant part on our lives, including our strong tendency of being a flock animal. Many of the worst dictatorships have tapped into human nature and relayed its subliminal messaging in a way that appeals to these traits. In refusing to acknowledge our nature, as so often seen nowadays, we are denying what we are and turning a blind eye to our own weaknesses.
Die Welle is a film that everyone should see. It is a refreshing take on how we must all safeguard our democracy. Otherwise, complacency can, and in some cases will, lead to an erosion of personal liberties, one at a time. Democracy is not without its own faults, but as the great thinker, Nobel Laureate and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’